Russian-Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur discusses her latest project in collaboration with the Southbank Centre: a celebratory and nuanced representation of south London and its residents at a crucial moment in time
“When I arrived in London (in 1991), I knew nothing about it,” says Russian-Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur. “I wasn’t into The Beatles, all I’d heard was how bad the weather was, so it wasn’t an attractive place in my mind! I saw it as a stopover... I wanted to go to America.” Very quickly, however, the documentary image-maker, whose work shines a powerful light on the lives of ordinary people, became infatuated by her new surroundings. “I kept seeing people I didn’t expect to see. I’m very attracted to human beings; I like to look at people and appreciate their presence and to me London is all about the people, which is why I never really felt like leaving.”
Fast forward 30 years and Johnson Artur continues to view London as her “place”. “I’ve had time to indulge in it and my photography has helped me to do this,” she tells AnOther, speaking as her latest project, titled London is Love, opens to the public. Comprising over 40 black and white and colour images, the show features large-scale photographs, displayed in the windows of the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth halls, as well as rolling projections on the Southbank Centre’s facade.
It is Johnson Artur’s third exhibition of the year, following solo shows at the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the South London Gallery in Camberwell. Both centred on her project the Black Balloon Archive, documenting individuals and communities across the African diaspora from the 80s up until today. And just as her South London Gallery exhibition served to paint an insightful portrait of the “richness and complexity of black British life”, Johnson Artur’s newest commission offers a celebratory and nuanced snapshot of south London and its residents.
“I’ve lived in south London since the 90s so when the Southbank asked if I’d be interested in this project, I said yes straight away,” the photographer explains. Together with the institution, Johnson Artur compiled a shortlist of pioneering people and collectives she felt represented the area, ranging from John Otagburuagu, the founder of Black Cowboy Coffee, to all-female creative community BORN N BREAD. “I went and spent a day with each of them – I work very quickly and spontaneously,” she laughs. “And that was that.”
One of the most striking things about Johnson Artur’s work is the intimacy it conveys: she documents everyday people being themselves, proudly and comfortably – and the effect is profoundly moving. “I’m an emotional person,” she says. “That’s how I do my work and how I relate to people when I ask to take their picture.” The London is Love images are no exception: two elderly women, snapped at a meeting for the visually impaired at Blackfriars Settlement, embrace each other tenderly; two fancifully clad members of The Chateau, an underground LGBTQ bar and cultural space in Camberwell, clasp hands behind the music decks; a young girl at Ebony Horse Club, a riding school for disadvantaged young people in Brixton, practices her stance on a model horse, sporting a determined grin as her instructor watches on.
Collectively, the photographs evoke a strong sense of community, of connection and of friendship – things that Johnson Artur feels are reflective of the city she knows and loves (“the whole of London,” she clarifies, “even though it’s taken in the south”). Johnson Artur, the Southbank Centre team and the subjects of the works themselves met up to choose which pictures would be included in the show – a process that the photographer, who normally works alone, very much enjoyed. “The people helped to pick the works they feel represented by, and that’s good, especially because they’re going to be big and I’ve never worked on this scale before,” she says.
That her subjects, and those who identify with them, feel acknowledged is integral to Johnson Artur’s practice. “There was this book for people to leave feedback in at my last exhibition and many of the visitors wrote that they felt seen, which made me very happy,” she says. The fact that the exhibition coincides with this week’s general election is coincidental but the photographer is relishing the chance to represent the people of London during this landmark moment. “I have a German passport so I can’t vote but at least I can make a statement. The problem for most human beings is that their voice is not registered. It’s really good to see each other – which is exactly what this achieves – so I couldn’t be asking for more.”
London is Love by Liz Johnson Artur is at the Southbank Centre until January 5, 2020.